June 14, 2005

Paul L: Quakers and the Bible

A Guest Piece by Paul L., used with permission

Paul had shared this articulate and important comment about Friends and the Bible after reading the post and other comments about dualities within Quakerism. I am thankful that Friends like Paul are teaching me about elements of Quakerism in such an organic way, so that I am not overwhelmed or shut down by overly high expectations of what I "should" know as a Friend. It's become clear to me, through Paul's remarks, that I hadn't fully understood the place of Scripture among Friends, or its relation to the Truth.  — Liz
I don't think any Friends branch would accept the formulation that Scripture/Bible = Word of God. Jesus is the Word; the Bible is the "words OF God", according to Barclay & Fox (and John 1). These words tell about and reveal the Truth about the Word but are reflections of the Light, not a source of Light itself. From what I read of the most Bibically based evangelical Friends, they would accept this as true (but would hasten to point out the dangers of taking it too far).

The original concept of "continuing revelation" that I think [Liz is] referring to meant that the the Bible continues to reflect the Light throughout time and space, if only we have eyes to see. This idea permitted reform and revision of various church doctrines, based on new understandings of the Bible that proved them wrong or inapplicable to present circumstances. Thus, the God revealed by the Bible is a Living God who is at work in human lives and history here-and-now just as he was to Abraham & Sarah, Moses, Isaiah, Mary, Paul, and the rest. Their stories continue to reveal the Truth to us today, here, but only if we read and tell them under the inspiration of the same Living God whom they reveal.

Nowadays, though, many Friends use the term "continuing revelation" to mean that God's nature and will can be and is being continually revealed in many ways in addition to the Bible, often non-verbally, and (to take it one step farther) that these non-verbal revelations can be relied upon even if they contradict the plain Biblical text, if they are judged true and authentic by (choose one: the individual or the meeting -- one of your other dichotomies).

So I'd phrase the duality [that Liz is] identifying as

       Perfect Reflection of Truth <---> Imperfect Reflection of Truth.

Actually, though, I wonder if it isn't more of a triality, if you will, more of a continuum. I'd suggest that contemporary Friends have three general views of the authority of the Bible and its place in our religious life:

1. The Bible is divinely inspired and contains the actual words of God. As such, it is the best, most reliable authority against which to test whether a concern or leading is indeed of God; no leading that contradicts Scripture could possibly be divine, no matter how deeply felt or widely accepted by an individual or group. The Bible reflects historic and spiritual Truth, but perfectly.

2. The Bible is a highly accurate and authoritative revelation and reflection of spiritual Truth, but it is not a perfect reflection, especially in its historic aspect. It is a valid and indespensible authority against which a leading may be tested for authenticity, but because it is a reflection of the Truth (i.e., the Living God), not the Truth itself, it cannot be considered the exclusive, final authority. (We don't worship the mirror but the Reality that it reflects.) While divinely inspired, the Bible was written by human beings who had biases and cultural conditioning (just as its readers have) and thus is a flawed reflection unless it is read with the same inspiration with which it was written. Reading it in this way enables the faithful reader to see and hear the Truth directly, in continually relevant and fresh ways. Other sacred texts may reveal and reflect Truth as well, but the Bible has particular power and authority for Friends.

3. The Bible is but one sacred book among many whose authority derives from the people who hold it sacred, not from any objective, divine inspiration. It may reflect Truth, but its reflection is deeply distorted by those who wrote it. While it may be useful as a source of spiritual Truth (this group would say "truths"), the Bible has no more inherent authority than its believers are willing to give it. Furthermore, in a world in which the Christian world view no longer predominates (or under which its predominance is under attack), it is offensive to other traditions to assign any special authority to the Bible. In other words, the experience of the Inner Light is not only necessary, it is sufficient and does not have to be validated or corroborated by the Bible or any other text to prove its authenticity.

If it isn't clear from my description of the positions, I'm pretty firmly in the #2 camp (and believe that it is also the most authentically Quaker view, but that's at best an informed opinion).

One image I can't resist sharing in this context: In the Last Temptation of Christ, there's a beautiful passage where Jesus as a young man is reading the Bible and begins to see the letters on the page as bars on a prison that is trying to keep the Truth from breaking out into the world. (In one of the many ways that I'm different than Jesus, I usually see the words as a window through which I can see the Truth. Another interesting paradox?)


Anonymous said...

To all of the above, 100% yes.

Liz, I don't think there is any
"fast" way to be led to those
conclusions. Don't be hard on
yourself for feeling like this
relation to scripture taking a
long time to gel. The truth is,
our ethical dilemmas just get
thornier and thornier by the
minute, and our method of guidance
is rarely a simple game of
the horse coming before the cart
when it comes to review of
scripture and its truth and

But you are right that once this
thought (the one Paul put forward)
is firm in one's faith, one's
entire epistemological approach
starts to turn.

Unknown said...

Coincidentally I had a friendly conversation with an atheist on the way home from work today which touched on thsi same issue. He was discussing a co-worker (7th-Day Adventist)_ and her biblical literalism.

I told him the authority of scriptures came not form them being factually accurate but by their being faithful witnesses. And as a person seeking to hear clearly the spirit of God speak to him through inward movements of intuition and conscience, I felt obliged to to attend the voices of otehrs engaged in the same work -- especially when those voices seem to contracdict my own sense.

I would add to what was written above by others, that scripture itself does not claim to be the infallable Word of God nor does it demand to be read literally.

Liz Opp said...

David, no worries: I am not feeling hard on myself at all. Thanks for the concern. smile

Y'know, re-reading this guest piece by Paul L., it occurs to me that I might blend positions 2 and 3:

The Bible is but one sacred book among many and [each] is a highly accurate and authoritative revelation and reflection of spiritual Truth, but [none is] a perfect reflection...

And David-William, your last sentence resonates with me, making me recall I have had similar thoughts over the years:

I would add... that scripture itself does not claim to be the infallable Word of God nor does it demand to be read literally.

Thanks for the added comments on this important subject.


Lorcan said...

Hi Liz:

I truly enjoyed your analysis, and it is close to the description I use to explain the difference between Wilberite, Gurnyite and Hicksite traditions. I also fall close to the second, being raised Hicksite - before New Age Friends began to be lumped into that terminology, somewhat in error, I believe. I would add a fourth, which I have seen, who go running from the Meeting house whenever Jesus or the Bible are mentioned.

Partially, this fourth category is becoming rarer, as Orthodox and Liberal Friends in our meeting have, mostly stopped trying to convert each other through ministry during meetings for worship. There was a time when meetings became theological lectures "at" each other.

I would say that I am Christian in the sense of Jesus as a Christ, in the manner that all modern scientists are Einsteinists. Jesus' teaching, like Fox's and Hick's laid the foundation of my inner search for God. But, unlike most Christians, I do not feel that Jesus, any more than the Pope is infallible, any more than I can read that still small voice within me every time with certainty that my ego does not assert itself often.

I often find myself in the position of reminding Friends that unlike the law, original intent is not written into Quakerism, Fox ( actually more Margaret Fell! ) would have reminded us that it is a living tradition and it is wrong to make a Pope out of George Fox. Rather, he was a navigator to put us on a particular spiritual path. When ever someone says George Fox would not have seen it that way, I thank them and remind them that 300 years of Quaker thought has flowed through our meetings since that time.

I would have to add Hill el to my appreciation of the role of Jesus in Christ, Christ as God teaching through the flesh of humanity, that of God we see in each of us.

Wishing you Christ's love